Friday January 4, 2013

Farm bill extension is evidence of lost clout

WASHINGTON (AP) -- A patchwork extension of federal farm programs passed as part of a larger "fiscal cliff" bill keeps the price of milk from rising but doesn’t include many of the goodies that farm-state lawmakers are used to getting for their rural districts.

House and Senate Agriculture Committee leaders who spent more than a year working on a half-trillion-dollar, five-year farm bill that would keep subsidies flowing had to accept a slimmed-down, nine-month extension of the 2008 law with few extras for anyone.

With the new Congress opening Thursday, they’ll have to start the farm bill process over again, most likely with even less money for agriculture programs this year and the recognition that farm interests have lost some of the political clout they once held.

American missiles kill senior Taliban militant in Pakistan who fought U.S. troops in Afghanistan

ISLAMABAD (AP) -- An American drone strike in Pakistan has killed a top Taliban commander who sent money and fighters to battle the U.S. in Afghanistan but had a truce with the Pakistani military, officials said Thursday.

The death of Maulvi Nazir is likely to be seen in Washington as affirmation of the necessity of the controversial U.S. drone program. It is likely to be viewed in a different light by military officials in Pakistan, however, because Nazir did not focus on Pakistani targets.

Nazir was killed when two missiles slammed into a house in a village in South Waziristan while he was meeting with supporters and fellow commanders. Eight other people were killed, according to five Pakistani security officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.

The U.S. rarely comments on its secretive drone program, and Pentagon spokesman George Little said he could not confirm Nazir’s death, but he added that if true, it would be "a significant blow" to extremist groups in the region.

He said it would be helpful not only to the U.S. and to Afghanistan but also to Pakistan, because "this is someone who has a great deal of blood on his hands."

New tax law includes tax breaks for race track owners, moviemakers, electric motorcycles

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Tucked into the "fiscal cliff" tax package approved by Congress are billions of dollars in tax breaks that should make the new year a lot happier for businesses of many stripes, including film producers, race track owners and the makers of electric motorcycles.

In all, more than 50 temporary tax breaks were renewed through 2013, saving businesses and individuals about $76 billion. Congress routinely renews the tax package, attracting intense lobbying -- and campaign donations -- from businesses and trade groups that say the tax breaks help them prosper and create jobs.

Businesses have grown used to many of the longstanding tax breaks, but they also have had to get used to the uncertainty of whether they will be renewed each year. This time around, as lawmakers struggled to reach consensus on a wide range of tax issues, the tax breaks were allowed to expire at the end of 2011.

The package passed by Congress this week and signed by President Barack Obama renews the tax breaks retroactively, so taxpayers can claim them on both their 2012 and 2013 tax returns.

The biggest of the bunch, a tax credit for research and development, helps U.S. manufacturers compete against foreign competition, according to the National Association of Manufacturers. Another provision helps restaurants and retailers expand by allowing them to more quickly write off the costs, according to the National Restaurant Association.

Analysis: Fiscal cliff deal replaces tough deficit-reduction talk with mostly pain-free steps

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Congress’ hectic resolution of the "fiscal cliff" crisis is the latest in a long series of decisions by lawmakers and the White House to do less than promised -- and to ask Americans for little sacrifice -- in confronting the nation’s burgeoning debt.

The deal will generate $600 billion in new revenue over 10 years, less than half the amount President Barack Obama first called for. It will raise income tax rates only on the very rich, despite Obama’s campaign for broader increases.

It puts off the toughest decisions about spending cuts for military and domestic programs, including Medicare and Social Security. And it does nothing to mitigate the looming partisan showdown on the debt ceiling, which must rise soon to avoid default on U.S. loans.

In short, the deal reached between Obama and congressional Republicans continues to let Americans enjoy relatively high levels of government service at low levels of taxation. The only way that’s possible, of course, is through heavy borrowing, which future generations will inherit.

While Americans widely denounce the mounting debt, not so many embrace cuts to costly programs like Social Security. And most want tax increases to hit someone other than themselves.

U.S. hiring shows signs of strength even as White House, Congress battle over budget

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The U.S. job market showed resilience in three reports Thursday, suggesting it may able to withstand a federal budget battle that threatens more economic uncertainty in coming months.

A survey showed private hiring increased last month, while layoffs declined and applications for unemployment benefits stayed near a four-year low. The data led some economists to raise their forecasts for December job growth one day before the government releases its closely watched employment report.

"The job market held firm in December despite the intensifying fiscal cliff negotiations," said Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Analytics. "Businesses even became somewhat more aggressive in their hiring at year end."

The most encouraging sign came from payroll provider ADP. Its monthly employment survey showed businesses added 215,000 jobs last month, the most in 10 months and much higher than November’s total of 148,000.

Economists tend to approach the ADP survey with some skepticism because it has diverged sharply at times from the government’s job figures. The Labor Department releases its employment report Friday.

Fighting rages around strategic Syrian military air base in the country’s north

BEIRUT (AP) -- Syrian troops and rebels fought intense battles Thursday around a strategic air base in the country’s north and a suburb of the capital that government forces have been trying to capture since last month, activists and state media said.

The fighting is part of the escalating violence in a Syrian civil war that the United Nations estimates has killed more than 60,000 people since the revolt against President Bashar Assad began in March 2011.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said rebels stormed parts of the Taftanaz air base in the northwestern province of Idlib before withdrawing. The state-run SANA news agency said government forces protecting the base "repelled the terrorists’ attempt to attack the airport" and inflicted heavy losses. The Syrian regime routinely refers to rebel forces as "terrorists."

The Observatory said rebels resumed their assault early Thursday in an attempt to capture the base, which has resisted several opposition efforts to take the facility in recent months.

The rebels have been pursuing a strategy of attacking airports and military airfields, targeting five air bases in Idlib and the nearby province of Aleppo, trying to chip away at the government’s air power, which poses the biggest obstacle to advances by opposition fighters.

New Japanese cars, cheap loans, and appealing compacts inspire buyers

DETROIT (AP) -- U.S. auto sales hit a five-year high in 2012, as low interest rates, improving consumer confidence and -- most important -- some great new cars drew buyers into dealerships.

Sales of new cars and trucks are expected to reach 14.5 million for 2012, up 13 percent from the year before. That not quite a return to the boom times of 2005, when sales hit 17 million. But sales are 40 percent higher than they were at the depths of the recession in 2009.

WINNERS

Volkswagen saw a 35-percent jump in sales in 2012, one of the biggest increases in the industry. The new Passat midsize car was the driver, with sales up 413 percent over 2011. Chrysler’s sales jumped 21 percent thanks to strong sales of the Dodge Caravan minivan

Trial to begin in Boston over pregnancy drug that four sisters blame for their breast cancer

BOSTON (AP) -- Trial is set to begin Friday in a lawsuit brought by four sisters who say their breast cancer was caused by a drug their mother took during the 1950s when she was pregnant.

Jury selection is scheduled in federal court in Boston in case involving DES, or diethylstilbestrol. Millions of pregnant women were prescribed the drug between the 1930s and the early 1970s to prevent miscarriages, premature births and other problems.

Drug companies argue that no firm link between DES and breast cancer has been established.

The Melnick sisters say they all developed breast cancer after their mother took DES during pregnancy. They say their mother was not on DES while pregnant with a fifth sister. And that sister has not gotten breast

Hillary Clinton to return
to work next week

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The State Department says Secretary of State Hillary Clinton plans to return to work next week after being treated for a blood clot in her head.

Spokeswoman Victoria Nuland says Clinton is resting at home but is speaking with senior staff and is, quote, "sounding terrific, upbeat and raring to go."

She says Clinton looks forward to returning to her Washington office next week, although a date hasn’t been set. Doctors have advised her to avoid international travel for now.

Clinton was discharged Wednesday from a New York hospital, three days after doctors diagnosed a blood clot during a follow-up exam stemming from a concussion she suffered in December. Doctors are treating the clot with blood thinners and say they expect she will fully recover.